Home > User Experience > UX fails the different. Forget “edge cases” and “inspiration porn” | by Ultan O’Broin | May, 2021

UX fails the different. Forget “edge cases” and “inspiration porn” | by Ultan O’Broin | May, 2021

UX fails the different. Forget “edge cases” and “inspiration porn” | by Ultan O'Broin | May, 2021


(tl;dr?) The so-called “disabled” community is not a design inspiration for others. People with differences are participants in design, not recipients, but UX designers ignore their real needs for different reasons. Recent multimodal HCI-based user experiences offer a chance to re-envisage design for people with differences.

Here are a few personal perspectives from a recent research project.

“It’s a nifty idea to learn you can charge your mobile phone battery from your wheelchair battery. Genius” — Stella Young.

We hear too much about empathy in user experience design for it to have any real meaning these days. Far too often what is actually applied in design thinking is a lazy sympathy. Designers reaching out to no one in particular, or to proxy users, coming up with solutions for problems that don’t really rank for fixing. Simulated testing. You know the deal.

Differently-abled people have enough dongles and daft apps. Image: Internet fair use. Ultan Ó Broin.

Take (what society snottily calls) “disabled users”. Yes, the O.G. hackers and innovators of life itself. The people who are inspired by other people just like them. Not that the design community acknowledges things as such.

“Disabled tinkerers and inventors are part of a long history of consumers who have reconfigured modern technologies for their own needs.” — Bess Williamson

Instead, they’re objectified and often positioned as what Stella Young calls “inspiration porn”. Empathy turns to sympathy.

Stella Young makes it clear that her difference does not automatically turn her into a noble inspiration to all humanity.

My usability research with people of different physical abilities in Ireland taught me one thing: this community already has enough apps and assistive technology being invented for them, rather than by them. The voice of common sense of design for disability has been drowned out by a noisy din of “innovation”, “inspiration”, and showing off by companies, charities, designers, and educators.

“We are the original lifehackers” — Liz Jackson

Here are a few participant quotes from that research project conducted for academic purposes; reproduced with permission:

  • “I am highly motivated”
  • “I am social”
  • “I am good at networking”
  • “I am determined to achieve”
  • “I play to my strengths”
  • “We need more visual signs, routes, and ramps on campus”
  • “I learn best with other people”
  • “Getting somewhere does not start or end in the car”
  • “I’m disabled by what’s around me; not by me”

My research was with folks with a range of mobility and cognitive differences that manifested themselves physically. (Other “disabilities” have thoughts that resonate along these lines.)

Take remote learning, or “Zoom School”, for example. It had to be introduced universally because of the Pandemic. Disabled people have wanted remote learning for decades — as an option. Now everyone needed it. And sure, there are accessibility features such as sound and big text, and all sorts of “assistive technology” (AT) around to make the online learning experience “universal”.

Except, Teams, Zoom, and the rest of the implementers, missed out that visual cues, body posture, one-on-one eye contact, and other communicative nuances make for more effective learning. One research participant also told me, “nobody can see I’m suffering, so who can help when I fall behind”? Furthermore, the low signal-to-noise ratio of online learning afforded by the chat, activity streams, notifications, and more “channels” within most video conferencing apps made concentration difficult and left some students and teachers struggling.

Common-sense design for differently-abled people is a mess. Image: Ultan Ó Broin.

Providing meaningful solutions for the design requirements of this community is getting lost in a post-disability narrative of universal design. The rights of differently-abled people as participants in their own enablement were superseded by the world of “universal design” before real needs were even close to redressing. With user experience design conflated with visual design, blinded by the pixel porn of dribbble.com, the stage was set for a narrative of disabled people’s redemption through digital technoloy. UX design is still a lot more MFA than MSc.

So, the 643, 131 Irish people who are officially disabled (2016 Census) are “extreme” users or “edge cases”? Insulting. This is a ‘touchy’ area, so research is not possible with end-users? Bullshit. Simulating requirements by having “able-bodied” people sitting in a wheelchair yourself or by wearing glasses smeared with Vaseline? Stunts.

The imperative for treating everyone equally has long been enshrined in law and accepted socially. But not in design. The narrative for enablement has changed. Instead of disabled people being afforded equivalent experiences, all too often the group is asked to change their behavior: switching on special preferences, installing special Chrome extensions, downloading special apps, or buying and adding additional hardware. There is absolutely no concept of a disabled person’s user experience beginning when the first synapses fire, let alone when it ends

This ‘dongle disability’ is not only insulting but it changes nothing. Instead of making all content accessible, more AT arrives. It’s like lecturing cyclists to wear hi-viz clothing and helmets when the fight is about providing safe, separate, bike infrastructure.

We need fewer wheelchairs that can climb stairs backward or beautifully engineered furniture for disabled people that come in flat-packs requiring assembly. Fewer “innovations” that are neither desired, viable, or feasible. Dude, going upstairs backward? Scary. Expensive. Dangerous. Some mental model.

Bear in mind this group of resourceful, able, and determined people is also often lower down in social-economic status, or in media or design representation. The patronizing design mess continues.

Yet, the real needs of the physically different are being articulated. Participants told me they needed more infrastructure that enables us to integrate: wheelchair ramps; doors that open on demand; signs that have visuals and less text; switches and plug outlets that are within reach. Cleaning the streets of dog poop. And so on. More Apps or AT is not high on their wish lists.

It is what it is. But the obsession with universal design as “one size fits all”, with digital transformation, with listening to tech titans who want to make the world a better place” (kerching!), and a less than inclusive UX crowd mentality and their fretting about Pantones is a good place to look for change.

Extreme or edge case? Park it. Image: Ultan Ó Broin.

Maybe the agency of dialogue-based HCI (conversational computing) will change UX design attitudes and practices. Scenarios where no special devices, downloads, training, or add-ons are needed to interact and do simple things through voice, text, gesture, thought, and so on, offer the potential to turn UX design in the direction it needs to go. Towards solving real problems; for real people; doing real things, in real places.

One thing is for sure: If you are not talking directly to real people with real needs, and then designing with them, then you should be not working in user experience.

So, do you want to design a solution? Ask real people. All people.

Ultan O’Broin (@ultan) is a user experience professional, sharer, and learner. They/them. Ultan is a registered disability student.





Source link